September 16, 2009
Atheism has won the debate
I think it should be clear to any thinking person that atheism has won. Not in terms of numbers, of course. People who call themselves religious still heavily outnumber those who say they are atheists, though the gap is closing. In a future post I will argue that the gap is closer than the raw numbers indicate but this post is about how atheists have clearly won the debate over whether it makes sense to believe that god exists.
The evidence for this is that religious intellectuals have pretty much given up on a god that has even a remote resemblance to what the word usually conjures up, and have instead created a faux god that merely provides them with a metaphor of transcendence to cling on to.
One can see this in the problem faced by religious intellectuals like H. E. Baber and Robert Wright. They are forced to agree with the atheist position that a god who intervenes in any way in the working of the universe is incompatible with a scientific worldview, since they realize that abandoning methodological naturalism puts them in bed with the religious crazies. But for whatever reason they are reluctant to call themselves atheists, so they are forced to invent the Slacker God to whom they can pledge allegiance and thus retain their religious credentials.
More evidence of the intellectual rout of religion can be seen in the September 11, 2009 issue of the Wall Street Journal, where the paper asked Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins to contribute a pair of articles on the topic Man vs. God. Each person apparently knew the other was writing but did not see their essay.
Armstrong is a former Catholic nun and a religious apologist who has written a huge number of books on comparative religion. Dawkins, of course, needs no introduction.
One should really read Armstrong's entire essay to fully appreciate the smokescreen of language that tries to hide modern theology's retreat in the face of science. I will quote just a small piece of it that captures the unenviable position that people like her and Baber and Wright find themselves in as a result of their need to simultaneously cling on to scientific respectability while not abandoning religion entirely.
The best theology is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry. Religion is not an exact science but a kind of art form that, like music or painting, introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words.
All the major traditions insist that the faithful meditate on the ubiquitous suffering that is an inescapable part of life; because, if we do not acknowledge this uncomfortable fact, the compassion that lies at the heart of faith is impossible. The almost unbearable spectacle of the myriad species passing painfully into oblivion is not unlike some classic Buddhist meditations on the First Noble Truth ("Existence is suffering"), the indispensable prerequisite for the transcendent enlightenment that some call Nirvana—and others call God.
So there we are. As far as Armstrong I concerned, the god that most people can recognize has disappeared, to be replaced by a Zen-like aesthetic, an art form that provides an experience similar to the appreciation of poetry or music or painting. She goes so far as to equate god with nirvana, the Buddhists' belief in a state of nonbeing that one supposedly enters if one manages to break free of the birth-death-rebirth cycle.
Dawkins, of course, has heard all this mush before and ruthlessly demolishes it. Being 'rude' and 'uncivil' as he is, he does not try to pretend that the position of Armstrong and others like her makes any sense but instead clinically dissects her argument to reveal that at its core is – nothing.
Now, there is a certain class of sophisticated modern theologian who will say something like this: "Good heavens, of course we are not so naive or simplistic as to care whether God exists. Existence is such a 19th-century preoccupation! It doesn't matter whether God exists in a scientific sense. What matters is whether he exists for you or for me. If God is real for you, who cares whether science has made him redundant? Such arrogance! Such elitism."
Well, if that's what floats your canoe, you'll be paddling it up a very lonely creek. The mainstream belief of the world's peoples is very clear. They believe in God, and that means they believe he exists in objective reality, just as surely as the Rock of Gibraltar exists. If sophisticated theologians or postmodern relativists think they are rescuing God from the redundancy scrap-heap by downplaying the importance of existence, they should think again. Tell the congregation of a church or mosque that existence is too vulgar an attribute to fasten onto their God, and they will brand you an atheist. They'll be right.
This is why I say that atheists have won. The sophisticated religious apologists have essentially conceded the argument and retreated to a small corner of the religious world that is cut off from that of the vast majority of religious believers. They are atheists in all but name.
POST SCRIPT: What happens when theology gets too sophisticated for its own good
Jesus and Mo weigh in on Karen Armstrong's view of god.